Okri’s fury is plainly visible under his deliberately plainspoken prose but in a story that's more thin than universal.

THE FREEDOM ARTIST

A dystopian allegory about how cultures can become cruelly prisonlike, from the Booker-winning author of The Famished Road (1992).

Okri’s somber, fablelike novel is a call to rally against oppressive institutions and for broader social consciousness. In that regard, it’s an inheritor of The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, and Things Fall Apart. Unlike those novels, though, the story is sparer, with only the barest scaffold of characterization and plot. In an unnamed city, a young man named Karnak had been neglecting peculiar graffiti springing up reading “Who is the prisoner?” until his lover, Amalantis, is hustled away by authorities. Elsewhere, Mirababa, a boy, is challenged by his grandfather to “find the elixir of freedom, and bring it back to the people.” As both go on their journeys, Okri describes a totalitarian state that whips up myth and propaganda to keep society in line, hunts down all critics of its authority, wipes reading from the culture, and renders its populace in a kind of agony, screaming at night while they sleep. The resistance’s graffiti changes (“upwake!”), and Okri cycles in more characters like Ruslana, whose father was “the last guardian of the tribe of writers." Okri’s writing is sturdy and graceful, fully inhabiting the authoritative tone of mythmaking; the grotesque imagery of institutional savagery in its latter chapters is harrowing. Yet the structure of the book is so simple, and its twists so modest, that the story has trouble sustaining itself at novel length. Okri reiterates the same laments for lost wisdom, and the book’s climactic calls for education and self-awareness are so familiar, with bromides about how our social problems start with us, that the novel edges into hectoring, wake-up-sheeple territory.

Okri’s fury is plainly visible under his deliberately plainspoken prose but in a story that's more thin than universal.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61775-791-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Akashic

Review Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

THINGS FALL APART

Written with quiet dignity that builds to a climax of tragic force, this book about the dissolution of an African tribe, its traditions, and values, represents a welcome departure from the familiar "Me, white brother" genre.

Written by a Nigerian African trained in missionary schools, this novel tells quietly the story of a brave man, Okonkwo, whose life has absolute validity in terms of his culture, and who exercises his prerogative as a warrior, father, and husband with unflinching single mindedness. But into the complex Nigerian village filters the teachings of strangers, teachings so alien to the tribe, that resistance is impossible. One must distinguish a force to be able to oppose it, and to most, the talk of Christian salvation is no more than the babbling of incoherent children. Still, with his guns and persistence, the white man, amoeba-like, gradually absorbs the native culture and in despair, Okonkwo, unable to withstand the corrosion of what he, alone, understands to be the life force of his people, hangs himself. In the formlessness of the dying culture, it is the missionary who takes note of the event, reminding himself to give Okonkwo's gesture a line or two in his work, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 1958

ISBN: 0385474547

Page Count: 207

Publisher: McDowell, Obolensky

Review Posted Online: April 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1958

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